Review: Infinite Hope

Infinite Hope

Infinite Hope, Anthony Graves. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018.

Summary: A first person account of an innocent black man wrongly found guilty of murder, leading to eighteen years in prison and twelve on death row until he was found innocent and released.

A terrible murder has taken place. Six people have been brutally murdered, and then set on fire in an attempt to destroy the evidence. A distant connection arrested for the murder implicates you as his collaborator, even though he barely knows you. You have an alibi, spending the time with your girlfriend, and among family, miles away from the murder scene. You are arrested, read your Miranda rights, but refuse an attorney because you think this is all a bad misunderstanding that can be cleared up by simply telling the truth. You are subjected to intense questioning, kept in prison without bond, monitored by prison guards, and other prisoners for making incriminating statements. The district attorney intimidates the murderer to testify against you even though he has previously admitted that this was a lie. Your alibi is intimidated with the threat of criminal charges. Crucial evidence is withheld from the defense team. You are convicted of murder, and sentenced to be put to death by the state of Texas. You spend twelve years on death row, and eighteen behind bars.

If you read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (review) and still weren’t convinced that stories like Walter McMillian’s was an exception, or cannot happen in America, perhaps this story of Anthony Graves might persuade you. In this book, Graves narrates the story from the side of the falsely accused, describing his arrest, trial, conviction and sentencing, the ordeal of living on death row, and how he was finally exonerated and his subsequent activism. It is an honest, raw account. He describes his increasing sense of desperation as he realizes that telling the truth isn’t enough, that the prosecutor (eventually charge with prosecutorial misconduct) will not stop at anything to convict him, and the agonizing wait for the jury’s verdict and sentence. He describes deplorable prison conditions, the unlikely friendships, and a brutal murder on death row. He recounts prison protests, and lockdowns, and periods of solitary confinement, and the terrible struggle to keep up hope. Twice he was given execution dates. He recounts the heartbreak of watching his sons grow up and not be able to be there for them.

He challenges us to grapple with the realities of living on death row:

“Like most Americans, I hadn’t given much thought to death row before my arrest. The writer and anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean famously said that support for the death penalty is a mile wide but only an inch thick. She meant that the death penalty’s many supporters rarely investigate the basis of their own beliefs. As I walked into Ellis One Unit, I didn’t know what to think. People typically focus on the death part of a death penalty sentence. What they don’t tell you is that life on death row is a torture all its own. I had no idea that I’d be living in a six-by-nine-foot cage, or that I’d do my business in a steel toilet in plain view of male and female officers alike” (p. 112).

There are also the people who keep on believing and fighting, from overseas correspondents to Nicole Casarez, part of his legal team who doggedly investigated his case as a journalism teacher and former corporate lawyer. A mother who never stopped praying and encouraging him. And finally, when his conviction is overturned, a new prosecutor, Kelly Siegler, who has the integrity to listen to her investigators, who told her that Graves was innocent.

Graves recounts his own growth, as he writes the memoirs that form the basis of this book, as he reads extensively from the prison library (he includes a list of formative books for him at the end of the book), and watches fellow prisoners go to their deaths. He becomes a legal expert on his own case, which forms him into the advocate he is now for criminal justice reform through the Anthony Graves Foundation.

Graves writes of others he believed to be innocent, and his case is certainly among a growing list of those under death sentences who have been exonerated. Surprisingly, Graves doesn’t make a big deal of his race, although racial bias is clearly evident in the narrative of his experience. Yet his case raises questions of how many innocent people have gone to their deaths. Given the number of such cases, and the racial bias in many of these cases, one has to ask whether, in the matter of death sentences, there is equal justice for all, and if not, in Bryan Stevenson’s words, “Do we deserve to kill?”

As important as these questions are, it is also important to note, and end on, the determination of Anthony Graves, his family, attorneys, and friends. Corrupt officials took away his liberty but they did not take away his hope. That hope for exoneration, for justice turned a young man trying to figure out his life into an advocate for justice for others. That hope led him to confront, at his disbarment hearing, the prosecutor who wrongly tried to have him executed, and forgive him. That hope gave us this raw and yet grace-filled narrative of wrongful conviction, life on death row, and vindication. Infinite hope, indeed.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Interview: Matthew Levering, Part Two

Levering-003-ART

Matthew Levering holds the James N. and Mary D. Perry, Jr. Chair of Theology at Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake. He has authored or co-authored over twenty books, including the recently published Dying and the Virtues, reviewed on this blog. I had the privilege of sitting down with him for a conversation while at a conference on the Mundelein Seminary campus. We discussed his personal journey to faith, his decision to enter the Catholic church, his scholarship, his latest work, and his thoughts on the work of a theologian and the state of theology. It was a rich and long conversation. Yesterday’s post included his thoughts about his scholarship and his book, Dying and the Virtues. Today, he shares his take on the work of a theologian and the state of the theological enterprise. This is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Bob on Books: Much of your work consists of teaching people who are being formed for the priesthood or other roles within the church. Why do you think theology is so important in that task?

Matthew Levering: Well as far as I’m concerned the answer is this. The life of the mind springs forth from the heart. There is a cry that comes out from people to know the truth about God and about reality. So there’s a deep desire. The problem is the intellectuals, as it were, in every culture, and certainly in our culture. You often find if you read the New York Review of Books or other intelligent things, that the intellectuals don’t seem to find Christianity very credible or attractive. I’m writing for people who are going to become Christian teachers, who at least have some interest in Christian teaching of some kind, whether it’s becoming pastors, priests, or lay leaders in the community. I’m writing for teachers, essentially. It’s a little like Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics. The idea is that you teach the teachers. From the deep questions that arise very passionately from within, I go and seek out other teachers. I read their work and I put their work into my books and essentially hand on that way.

I’m trying to show that there’s a wonderful Christian conversation about these questions. I’m inviting young people, who are starting out with me, beginners like myself, into this conversation which is so much fun, which is so rich, really so glorious. It’s really so much more fun and beautiful and true than you might get if you just read the works of popular intellectuals. To be in Christ is such a glorious thing and the truth of it is simply stunning and rich and wonderful. But it is something that involves an intellectual labor, a labor of mind. We’re being taught by teachers and then sharing what teachers have taught us. I want to be part of that conversation in Christ with fellow Christians.

Bob on Books: I work in a ministry that tries to connect that conversation with some of the wider intellectual conversations that go on in the academy. What have been your experiences of connecting the theological conversation to the wider conversations going on about the nature of human life and human flourishing and all the things that are explored in what may be called the secular academy?

Matthew Levering: Here’s kind of the secret to the whole thing. Honestly, my experience of being a theologian has been an experience first of all my own ignorance. I’ve felt often times a strong sense that I don’t really know how to even begin an answer to a question someone will ask me. That will be an inspiration to write a book. By writing a book, you are essentially learning from a bunch of other teachers and then sharing their wisdom.

The secret, the key thing, the unfortunate thing I’ve found that theology, as a Christian discipline–and I want to include myself very much in this–theology is in tatters. Now I’m not saying this of the seminary where I work now, which is a very wonderful place! I’m not saying theology is in tatters here. I’m essentially saying that theology as a discipline, as a whole, is a discipline that is at war with itself. The war that I would describe is a war over whether God has truly spoken. It is essentially the war that has been going on for a while between classical, liberal versions of Christianity where what’s really happening is we’re gesturing toward the ineffable. Different eras try to build authentic community and liberative praxis from human resources and gesture toward the ineffable, the mystery. That would be what I call classical, liberal Christianity. That’s sort of at war with a more counter-cultural Christianity rooted in a commitment to divine revelation–a sense of God pouring out his Word, and becoming incarnate, and God’s Word dying for us.

If you want to know what I’m talking about, a great book to start with is by a scholar named Garry Wills. He has a book called Why Priests? which is an amazing example of classical liberal Christianity. He’s a very learned man. By no means am I trying to impugn him. In the book, he feels a little defensive because he doesn’t want his Christian commitment challenged. If he’s reading this, I’m not trying to impugn Garry Wills! I’m just saying that when I read the book, there are strong resonances of my own knowledge of what I would call classical, liberal Christianity.

That’s the situation right now. Among theologians around the world, the guild of intellectuals, there’s a strong questioning of whether we can defend God truly speaking, or whether in fact it has been some second temple Jews gesturing to this, or whether it is some post-exilic competing priestly clans, or some kind of Greek influence on church leaders trying to take power in fourth century Roman empire. And so different forms of gesturing, however authentic they might be, their gestures, their language, it’s all very historically conditioned. So we now have our own gestures and language in which we can use Jesus as a liberative model, a model of love. You can see the benefit of that kind of approach to Christian theology because it makes Christianity more easily defensible. To people who challenge Christianity, they say “We don’t believe that either but we’re just gesturing, we’re building authentic community and gesturing, using Jesus as a liberative model, whatever happens to be in the zeitgeist. Morally, you can just adopt that and say, “That’s what we want too.” Jesus is a model of that, he is a Liberator.

What you lose, though, is the Savior from sin and death. You lose the communion with the Holy Trinity. You lose the actual sanctification of the communion with our divine Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who are inviting us into their communion here and now. You lose that [experience of] actually being transformed and that power of God’s Word and that challenge–that real challenge of holiness and that challenge that confronts us as sinners who are broken; and that challenge that confronts us with real mercy built upon the cross where God has come to a broken creation that refuses to love, and God has loved for that creation at the very place where we have refused to love, which of course is our dying. We can’t accept dying so we turn our backs on God, but God has come right into that context and loved us and saved us in that very place of death — praise be to God, praise be to Jesus!.

Theology, in my view, is under great strain. I recently completed a manuscript called Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? It’s not a popular apologetics. It’s written for scholars. It’s a work that hopefully could be read by others, but the main point is that unless you can get deep into the nitty-gritty, they’ll say “You’re just on the surface here.” The work of theology understood as responding to divine revelation is a very difficult labor. You have to listen to a lot of voices to make sure that you are not making claims that are too strong. You have to be very careful in listening to and hearing as many voices as you can, as many voices of other scholars and other thinkers. Within that, there is a strong defense that can come forth of the reality that Jesus really did rise from the dead.

Theology, then, in my experience is a fragmented discipline. The answer to your question is that I focus my attention on speaking to theologians and attempting to strengthen theologians. I seek to strengthen the discipline. I’m including strengthening myself and my beloved fellow theologians and especially young theologians in training and therefore also pastors and priests–to strengthen them to know that the fullness of divine revelation and the full life of the critical mind can go together. That’s the key point that I’ve been trying to say.

Bob on Books: I speak often about my own work with grad students as connecting the love of God and the love of learning.

Matthew Levering: Yes, beautiful. Remember, when I’m talking about the love of learning, I’m talking about the critical kind where you ask difficult questions that can seem corrosive. I think all those questions have to be asked, to be gotten to the bottom of. We need to hear the voices of the many teachers who can teach us if we are willing to ask those deep questions. The point is that we don’t want to underestimate the discipline of theology. There are so many wonderful resources, even though I think at the current moment in some circles there is something of a crisis of confidence, and therefore the discipline itself needs a certain strengthening. I haven’t devoted myself to speaking outside of the discipline. I haven’t done that but would love to do it though!

Bob on Books: I might figure out a way to take you up on that!

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Books by Matthew Levering reviewed at Bob on Books:

Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation (review)

Engaging the Doctrine of Creation (review)

Dying and the Virtues (review)

Interview: Matthew Levering, Part One

Levering-003-ARTMatthew Levering holds the James N. and Mary D. Perry, Jr. Chair of Theology at Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake. He has authored or co-authored over twenty books, including the recently published Dying and the Virtues, reviewed yesterday on this blog. I had the privilege of sitting down with him for a conversation while at a conference on the Mundelein Seminary campus. We discussed his personal journey to faith, his decision to enter the Catholic church, his scholarship, his latest work, and his thoughts on the work of a theologian and the state of theology. It was a rich and long conversation. Today’s post will include his thoughts about his scholarship and his book, Dying and the Virtues. Tomorrow, I will include his take on the work of a theologian and the state of the theological enterprise. Both are lightly edited transcripts of our conversation.

Bob on Books:  You’ve written a lot of books and I wonder if you could talk about whether there is any thread or trajectory that ties together your scholarship?

Matthew Levering:  Certainly there is a desire to be touched by Jesus, to learn about Jesus from all angles,  and to learn about Jesus in his divine sonship and his relationship with the Father, his love for us, and to reach out to him through writing and thinking. That’s the motivating thing. There’s also a strong thing that moves me very deeply of bridging the elements of the Christian past with the Christian present.  I’m very interested in scriptural reading. I read historical critical biblical scholarship. A fun day is if I’m reading something from Augustine and then I read something from Richard Hayes and I make a connection between the two because there’s a sense of the fullness of Christianity, the wholeness, that I’m not getting stuck in any one century where I’m bringing together past and present. To me that’s the biblical office of a scribe. You bring old things and new. You offer them to fellow Christians as essentially a bringing together, a meditating on the scriptural word, but with all the centuries involved or as many as possible.

And it is bringing that word of God, that Living Word which is always new, always fresh, that has all the centuries and also an insistence that the passage of time has not distanced us from the actual gospel.  I’m very concerned that people say “well it was medieval or it was patristic, it was Reformation, it was this or that, it’s been distanced, it’s been separated from the Biblical word.” That would mean for me that God was not being faithful to his people during those time periods. In other words, to each generation, God is faithful to his people in giving the gospel to his people. So therefore, there must be a way to bring together all these diverse voices, to show their deep unity in Christ. You see what I mean?

Bob on Books: it sounds to me what you’re trying to do is to help people to see how this long tradition of scholarship hangs together.   That it is Christ who makes it hang together and reconciles all things. It seems like you’ve moved from your own encounter with Christ to helping others encounter Christ in this long tradition of people who have contemplated…

Matthew Levering: Yes that’s exactly the goal but also with contemporary questions, with questions that we have today, whether it’s from Richard Dawkins who is so influential– all sorts of questions that we have today. I don’t really do what’s called historical theology, I did one book of historical theology but it was the most boring book I ever wrote!  For me, all theology is caught up with the now, because it’s the day of Christ, because he’s present, he’s living. We need to draw upon all the centuries, all the wisdom, that Christ has been giving his people. We need to hear those voices, and those voices are going to be able to help us as we speak today to answer and to proclaim Jesus.

Bob on Books: You’ve mentioned the questions that we ask today. Your most recent book Dying  and the Virtues seems to address a very important question about  death and about how death shapes how we live. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about what you were trying to do in that book.

Matthew  Levering:  That’s wonderful, because I wrote that book after the book on creation which was about God the Life Giver and the pouring out of life. As I pondered on this, I thought I needed to write a book on dying. Included in dying I also included the fall of Adam and Eve. That was a topic in my creation book and so I had already in mind the question of death. In my creation book I include a chapter on the fall and on Christ’s atonement. These things are already somewhat present  in the creation book. But the main point I want to get across is that for me, I can’t think of death as an academic topic. Nor can I think of any topic as a merely academic topic. It’s always deeply personal for me. When people say the word “death,” when I say the word death, I think it’s very concrete for me in the sense death isn’t an abstraction, a concept. Neither is creation, the Trinity, or anything. When I think of death, when I think about the experience of the last moments, the last days, that feels very concrete. I feel very contingent even if I were to live 50 more years.  Death doesn’t seem a distant thing from me but a very present neighbor.

Bob on Books:  It’s the same transience you were talking about in your personal experience…

Matthew Levering: Yes that’s it, the sense of transience.  I feel very strongly calling out to Christ Our Lord who dies on the cross for us.  I feel very strongly calling out to him saying “Lord, Lord is this really good? How could you leave me here to go through this threatening, this entering into darkness, a complete destruction of my bodily frame? How could this possibly be your will?” Calling out to Jesus and saying it’s good for you Lord, to be on the cross, and maybe we can build some booths around you like Peter and we can Rejoice that you have saved us Lord but now you’re surely not calling us to go through this Darkness, this sense of Destruction? My answer is surely not Lord! Surely not! Just like Peter saying by no means would the cross be good for the Lord.  

Bob on Books:  Connect up for me the idea of dying and the virtues–the two parts of your title.

Matthew Levering:  To give away the idea of the book,  it’s that God permits us to go through dying  because we need certain virtues. In other words dying is a crucial part of living and the process of dying begins everyday.  We need a set of virtues given our fallen condition. Even though we are redeemed we need to beg, we need to plead for these virtues. Dying is an instruction manual that teaches us to beg for what we actually need in order to flourish, what we need in order to be Christ-like.

Bob on Books:  I would assume that it has to do with faith, hope, and love?

Matthew Levering:  Yes it begins with faith hope and love. The first chapter is on the threat of annihilation. The first chapter is on love. I begin with the Book of Job where Job questions. I assemble a bunch of texts from The Book of Job where he questions whether God truly loves him. He remembers that one time that he and God were really close and that God seem to love him then. In fact God made him in the womb.  God knew him and crafted him. God built his flesh and bones. God loves him and put him in the community of people and God blessed him. Job cries out, “You’re not a lover, you’re a destroyer!” Job says that to God. I’m not quoting directly but he says “you’re there to destroy my flesh.”

This raises the question of love.  Does God love us? Do we love him? And can we love him given that our bodily frame is going to be destroyed. Do we love this God? Can we love him given that he seems to be threatening us? What kind of lover would allow us to go through this horrible misery and be destroyed? Does God really love us? Do we really love God? My main point is that we often don’t love God. We sort of fear God because we think he really doesn’t love us. He really doesn’t quite love us because he’s going to allow us to die. He’s going to humiliate us. In the end we’re going to be stripped and humiliated. So we love the God who sets us up on a pedestal and gives us a nice book by Eerdmans and stuff! We love that God but the God who sets us down and says you’re going to be stripped and humiliated– that God we don’t love. We don’t love the God of the cross. So we have to be turned around , we have to allow God’s voice to come through. Remember how God speaks to Job in the end. God says, “you don’t know my plan. You weren’t there. Were you there when the angels sang for joy at the dawn of creation? Do you know the power of the different created things?“

So God tells Job, “you just don’t know my ways.” And ultimately God’s point is that you don’t know the plan. The point that God has made to Job that Job understands is that God loves Job. God comes out and cares for Job and speaks to Joe.   God assures Job that his power to love is not going to be stopped by Death. The end of Job is like a blessing of resurrection, of communion in a certain way. It’s all really pointing to Christ where God shows who God is in the midst of death and resurrection in his perfect love. Since we’ve got to live it through Job, we’ve got to realize that we tend not to love God. We tend to love the God who is giving us blessings. But we tend to think that there’s this other God who is a humiliator, who is essentially going to abandon us.

Part two of this interview will appear tomorrow.

Review: Dying and the Virtues

Dying and the Virtues

Dying and the VirtuesMatthew Levering. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of scripture, theological resources, and contemporary writing that considers the virtues that help the Christian believer to both live and die well.

Death is something we don’t like to talk about and much of our culture lives in a conscious effort to deny that all of us have a terminal condition. Sooner or later, we will die. From exercise to diets to medical breakthroughs to transhumanism, we are trying to extend our lives. Sometimes, we just keep ourselves too busy to think about it. Yet the refusal to face our deaths leaves us and our families unprepared when the time comes. More than this, it leads us to neglect important virtues important for both how we live and when we die.

This last is the focus of Matthew Levering’s book. Levering, a Catholic theologian, explores nine virtues through multiple lenses of scripture, theological writing, and contemporary sources: love, hope, faith, penitence, gratitude, solidarity, humility, surrender, and courage. I found time and again that his explorations brought fresh insights to familiar passages, and new perspectives I had not previously considered.

Levering begins with Job and the fundamental fear and objection Job raises–that God would annihilate the existence of one who loves him. In God’s answer, really God’s questions, Job understands that a God who can so create and order and sustain the world may be trusted, against the horror of death, to lovingly sustain him, inviting him to live a life of love. He goes on in chapter two to consider sources from Susan Sontag and David Rieff to Josef Pieper and Robert Bellarmine and how they address the existential questions death poses of meaning in our lives, where we find the will to live, and how we might live in hope, believing and meditating on the unseen realities both of the souls we possess and the promises of our future state. Chapter three, then, focuses on faith through exploring what it is that dying people want through the work of a doctor and a hospice worker who describe the longing for closure, for reconciliation with oneself, with people, and for some, with God. Jesus, whose life and death make reconciliation and communion possible, calls us to meet him, and find in him these deep longings through faith.

I had never thought of Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 as a speech of penitence but rather one of indictment. Levering invites us in chapter four to see instead Stephen speaking prophetically in deep penitence for Israel’s sins as well as in gratitude for the grace that is greater than our sins. He then turns (chapter five) to the dying gratitude of Macrina, sister of Gregory of Nyssa. He writes:

“Gregory and Macrina complicate this notion of ‘dignity’ and of ‘hope.’ Macrina shows that ‘who has lived in dignity, dies in dignity.’ But dignity does not reside in our achievements and merely human relationships. Macrina’s ‘dignity’ consists primarily in her participation in the church’s liturgical life, through which the people of God offer themselves in Christ as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and which extends itself in works of mercy. Prayerful praise and thanksgiving stand at the core of Macrina’s conception of human dignity” (p. 98).

Her participation in this rich liturgical worship both enables her to live with thankfulness in life but with gratitude that she shares in the resurrection to come. Our identification with Christ and his people in both penitence and gratitude leads us into solidarity (chapter six), the experience of finding comfort in our own suffering in our solidarity with the sufferings of Christ, and compassion for the sufferings of others through our communing with Christ’s sufferings.

But why does death so often involve suffering, sometimes severe? While many of us long for a peaceful passing, this is often not granted. In chapter seven, Levering looks at Mark 10:45 and the idea of ransom as a kind of tribulation by which Jesus delivers Israel out of the exile that was a consequence of her prideful rejection of God. He explores Aquinas and how suffering, both the humbling of Christ, and the stripping us of the things by which we find honor, call us into a “new exodus” of humility that is the way of salvation. Humbling leads to surrender (chapter eight), the readiness to offer up our lives to God, a surrender we often fiercely fight. The sacrament of the anointing of the sick helps us in this in reminding us of the healing work of Christ in us, to which we surrender ourselves in death that we may be raised up in Christ. Finally, in chapter nine, Levering considers the courage involved in bidding goodbye to life as we know it. He considers the work of Richard Middleton and Paul Griffiths, one emphasizing the continuities of our future state with this life, the other the discontinuities. Courage is to face this fear of this unknown future and to “boldly go” in the promise of Christ.

Levering’s argument throughout this book is that we do not merely need these virtues in our dying hours, but that these are the virtues Christians are meant to live by. Throughout, he articulates a vision of these found in union in Christ and nourished by the liturgical and sacramental life of the church, as we live into the story of scripture, finding our own story in its pages.

While some aspects of Levering’s treatment are distinctively Catholic, as would be expected of a Catholic theologian, the existential questions he explores through secular as well as Christian writers remind us of the stark realities with which all of us must deal. His focus is one all who name Christ can affirm, our union with Christ, our fundamental belief in a God who is love, and the virtues that follow. Levering opens up a conversation we desperately need to have in the church: what does it mean to die well in Christ? It is needed not only to aid us in our final days, but also because we cannot truly understand what it is to live well in Christ, until we have understood what it is to die well in Him. The conversation has been going on for centuries, even millenia. In the pages of Levering’s book, we join those from Job to Aquinas to Mother Theresa who have wrestled with these realities and lived virtuously in the face of death through their faith in God and union with Christ.

Look for an interview with Matthew Levering in an upcoming post.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Path Between Us

The Path Between Us

The Path Between UsSuzanne Stabile. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press – Formatio, 2018.

Summary: Using the tool of the Enneagram, this explores how each “number” interacts with the other numbers, how each number relates in stress, and security, and what is helpful for other “numbers” to understand about relating to a person with this number.

In The Road Back to You(review) Suzanne Stabile and her co-author Ian Cron give one of the most accessible explanations of the Enneagram that I have read. In this sequel, Suzanne Stabile builds on the insights of how each of the nine “numbers” on the Enneagram views and engages with the world uniquely and how this shapes the ways we build and maintain relationships with others, both those who share our “number” and those who differ (Enneagram types are summarized by the number for that type).

She begins by reviewing briefly the different numbers, the different Triads (Gut – 8, 9, 1; Heart – 2, 3, 4; Head – 5, 6, 7), the Wings (adjacent numbers to ours), and our Stress and Security numbers (those whose qualities we may draw on when we are under stress or feeling secure) and the three Stances (Aggressive – 3, 7, 8; Dependent – 1, 2, 6; and Withdrawing – 4, 5, 9). These are elaborated much more fully in The Road Back to You but also covered in the context of relationships in the following chapters.

Before discussing relationships for each number, Stabile offers very helpful advice for those concerned about the misuse of the Enneagram:

“First, please don’t use your Enneagram number as an excuse for your behavior. Second, don’t use what you’ve learned about the other numbers to make fun of, criticize, or stereotype, or in any way disrespect them. Ever. Third, it would be great if you would spend your energy observing and working on yourself as opposed to observing and working on others. And going forward, I hope you will share my desire that we all grow in our ability to accept, love, and walk beside one another on the path with loads of compassion and respect” (p. 13).

The next nine chapters are devoted to looking at each number beginning with Eights (the Gut Triad). Each chapter begins with a story of an interaction involving a person with the number being considered. This is followed by a description of the world of this number, how they respond in relationships under stress and security, and the path together with this number. A sidebar in each chapter considers relationships between this number and each of the other numbers, including those sharing the same number. The chapter concludes with two summaries, one focused on key things a person with this number need to remember that they can, and can’t do in relationships and what they need to accept; and one focused on what others need to keep in mind in their relationships with a person with this number.

I found this book extremely helpful both for self-understanding, and understanding the ways I relate with others. In my case, I’m a Five. I value competence that comes through knowing, independence, privacy, and guarding my energies. I listen and observe well, but I’m not always good at communicating my feelings. Instead, I will tell you what I think. I learned that I’m not always good at picking up innuendo or indirect communication (true). Being laid up for a couple of months at the end of 2016 told me how hard it is for me to let others care for me, and the truth that the best way to live is neither dependent nor independent, but interdependent. Stabile’s title for my number really fit: “My Fences Have Gates.”

One critique I would offer of this book is that it assumes that a person knows their Enneagram number and doesn’t give much direction to the person who does not. There is a resource advertised at the end of the book on knowing your number but little guidance given about how one may go about discerning this. Stabile has been trained by Fr. Richard Rohr, whose approach is that one discerns one’s number as one reads the different types and finds one that makes you uncomfortably squeamish, saying “how did you know that about me?” That one is probably yours.

I know there are some who are critical of the Enneagram. I won’t try to defend this tool, except to say it has been useful for me and those I work with. Those who work with the Enneagram often like to say that the purpose of the Enneagram is not to put us in a box, but rather to help us understand the box we are in. Often, I’m tripped up by the things I don’t understand about myself. As I grow in self-understanding this opens up new dimensions in relationships with both people and God, and frees me to more skillfully use my gifts and pursue the things I care about. Only Jesus fully knows me, and can form me to be the person he envisions, both fully who I am, and in his image. The Enneagram has been one way among many he has used in this process. Stabile’s work is a great introduction to this way, this tool.

The Path Between Us Study Guide is a companion guide for both individuals and groups who want to pursue this material further. The six studies are titled:

  1. The Best Part of You Is the Worst Part of You
  2. What We Want
  3. What We Fear
  4. What We Offer
  5. Keeping Each Other Forgiven and Free
  6. Ways to Help Ourselves and Others

There is a section for those facilitating group discussions with a plan for each session. I have not used this guide so I cannot evaluate it. It appears that it can be used independently of reading the book, though I’m sure the book content will enrich discussions and insights.

The author has also recorded eight short YouTube clips accessible via the publisher’s website or through this link. I have to confess that the author photo gave me the impression of a stern school principal, an impression immediately dispelled in listening to her on the videos!

Stabile’s book and accompanying guide are the best resources I’ve seen for extending the framework of the Enneagram to our relationships and giving practical insights for relationships between the different numbers. As she has written, we all probably have much room to “grow in our ability to accept, love, and walk beside one another on the path with loads of compassion and respect.” In her work, we have a wise and gracious guide for the journey.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Smoky Hollow

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Harrison Common – Smoky Hollow – Pergola. Photo by Jack Pearce [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr

I’ve always been fascinated by the name. Smoky Hollow. Sounds a bit mysterious. Atmospheric. The last was literally so at one time. There often was a veil of smoke over the area in early years due to the nearby Mahoning Valley Iron Company.

The area was once the property of the James Wick family. As mills grew up along Crab Creek in the late 1800’s, immigrants densely settled the nearby neighborhoods with homes where you could read the neighbor’s newspaper through the side window, or even closer in row houses. While immigrants moved there from a number of countries, the Italian community dominated by the 1920’s. There were stores with names on them like Nazurini, Lariccia, Tucci, Gaglione, DeBartolo, Cianello, Conti, and Diciacomo. An early business that has survived to this day is Cassese’s MVR Club. Edward J. DeBartolo, Sr., shopping mall developer was born here in 1919. Jack Warner and Dom Roselli also grew up here.

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Harrison Common, The Smoky Hollow Granite Map. Photo by Jack Pearce [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr (site includes a legend of identifiable structures)

The neighborhood is bordered by Wick Avenue on the west, the US 422 freeway on the north and east, and Rayen Avenue and Oak Street on the South. In our childhoods, both my wife and I attended churches on the edge of Smoky Hollow. We went to Tabernacle United Presbyterian Church, at the corner of Wood and Walnut until the congregation relocated to Austintown in 1968. My wife’s family went to Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church, just down Wood Street, and my wife went to the school next to the church through eighth grade. Many of her classmates lived in Smoky Hollow. For a time, my father worked nearby at the Raymond Concrete Pile plant along Andrews Avenue.

From the 1970’s on, the neighborhood declined, especially after the mill closures and a number of homes were vacant and razed. The vacancies combined with the growth of Youngstown State has resulted in the beginnings of redevelopment in the area. University classroom buildings, a parking garage, and apartments were built east of Wick Avenue.

Wick Neighbors, Inc in cooperation with St. John’s Episcopal Church, Youngstown State and the City of Youngstown developed a plan for the redevelopment of the area. One of the first parts of the plan to be completed was the creation of Harrison Common Park in 2011, across the street from the MVR, using a combination of $4 million in public funds and private donations. The park features a brick-paved plaza, a pergola donated by the Rotary Club, landscaping, and a large playing field. There is also a pizza/bread oven, reminiscent of the backyard ovens many early Youngstown residents used for baking bread and pizza-making. There is an inlaid, granite plat map of the Smoky Hollow area from 1920 to 1940.

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Bread Oven at Harrison Common. Photo by Jack Pierce [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr

Other improvements in the area include road and infrastructure improvements on Walnut Street and the major improvements made on Wick Avenue. Long term development includes plans for housing and attracting businesses to the Smoky Hollow area. In 2014 Wick Neighbors, Inc. merged into Youngstown CityScape, which continues under the latter name.

To visit the area is to be reminded of a once vibrant neighborhood of small groceries and other businesses, densely packed housing and a vibrant neighborhood life. Now most of the houses are gone. The MVR lives on. Much of Smoky Hollow’s life is connected to the university. Harrison Common Park suggests the center of what could be a new vibrant community in the future. When that future will come and what that will look like remains to be seen. Until then the name reminds us of the place that once was. Smoky Hollow.

[Like some other names in Youngstown, some add an “e” to the name, making it Smokey Hollow. I chose the usage I found in The VindicatorWikipedia, and Youngstown CityScape.]

 

“Friendly Fire” at Your Neighborhood Church

“Please don’t talk to our children anymore.” These were the words to a scientist who believed in creation, the incarnation, the resurrection and the return of Christ. They came from an elder in his church. Why? Because he is a biologist who also believes in evolution and does not see his science and faith in conflict. He and his family never went to a church for more than a few weeks for the next ten years,

It’s a story I heard the other day. It’s a story, variations of which, I’ve heard for years. The professor who is suspect in her department because she is a Christian and suspect in her church because she is an academic. The bright high school student who asks too many hard questions when everyone else wants to talk about sex, and is shut down. The successful woman executive who is not permitted to exercise her leadership and management skills on the church board because only men can lead. Some of you can add your own painful stories. I hear a lot of those stories from students and faculty who have walked away from their churches and, in some cases, their faith.

Why do we do this to each other?

I don’t know but I wonder if we are so accustomed to fighting culture wars, battles for the courts, and fights to take back America that we keep fighting anyone who is different, even in the church. And sometimes we are so used to distorting the truth to achieve good ends that we  distort the Bible to justify our friendly fire.

It’s funny how we sometimes talk about finding a church “home.” Robert Frost had this definition of home: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” It strikes me that in most places, when someone shows up at church, they are looking for home, for some kind of rest. Jesus says, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” He didn’t say, if you do the right things, believe the right things and oppose the wrong ones, I will give you rest. He says this is a place where you can come and lay your burdens down.

I’m not writing this as a rant against my church. Actually, it is a place that lets people be different. Political parties, skin color, what we wear, what we do for recreation, the kinds of songs we like to sing, vegetarians and meatatarians. We do hold some things in common–Jesus, the resurrection, trying to live by the Bible, caring for our neighborhood. Actually, it’s quite simple and unsensationally beautiful at times and we are far from being an exception to the rule.

I simply wish I didn’t have to hear stories like the scientist told. Recently, the CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods said they would stop selling assault rifles. He said they did not want to be part of the story of another school shooting. When will we decide that we don’t want to be part of a story of friendly fire at a church?

 

Review: Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires EverywhereCeleste Ng. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

Summary: When Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl rent a duplex apartment from Elena Richardson, the matriarch of a successful Shaker Heights, Ohio family, it sets in motion a series of events, “little fires” that culminate in a fire that burns down the Richardson home, and transforms the lives of both families.

Elena Richardson, matriarch of a seemingly perfect and successful family in Shaker Heights, Ohio, sleeps in one Saturday to awaken to a house on fire–little fires started in the center of each of the beds in the house. Elena, the keeper of rules in a community of rules watches the house burn down as her “perfect” children and husband gather–all except Izzy, who always pushed against the rules and is no where to be found. It is Izzy who set the fires, and has fled. How did all this happen?

The little fires begin when Mia Warren and her high school daughter Pearl rent a duplex apartment Elena owns. The two of them have lived a gypsy life, living only long enough in any one community for Mia to compose a series of photographs, the sales of which, along with odd jobs provide enough for them to live on, before they pack what fits into their VW Rabbit and move on. But this time they hope to stay.

Little fires. Elena’s son Moody is curious and meets Pearl and instantly falls in love and draws Pearl into the affluent life of the family with older brother Trip, and sisters Lexie and Izzy.

Little fires. Elena visits the duplex and sees Mia’s art–photographs altered or with other objects superimposed that she sends to a New York dealer. Hearing Mia works at a Chinese restaurant to make ends meet, she invites Mia to clean and cook in exchange for the rent in what seems a noble gesture of supporting the arts.

Little fires. Izzy is suspended for standing up to a bullying music teacher, and opens up to Mia, who asks, “what are you going to do?” opening up possibilities Izzy has never thought of before. Izzy begins assisting Mia in her work.

Little fires. Lexie and Izzy see a photograph of a younger Mia holding an infant (Pearl) in the Cleveland Museum of Art by a famous New York photographer, Pauline Hawthorne. They talk Mrs. Richardson, who is a reporter for a local newspaper, to investigate the back story. In the process, she uncovers secrets Mia has kept even from her own daughter.

Little fires. Mia figures out that the Asian-American baby who is a ward of the state that the McCullough’s, close and childless friends of the Richardsons, want to adopt, is the baby her co-worker at the Chinese restaurant, Bebe, left at a fire station when she had been abandoned and in post-partum despair. Mia lets this information slip, leading to a custody case that is all over the press, and that divides the community, and fires Elena’s resentment of Mia, who seems to represent everything Elena is not, and perhaps turned away from for her successful, rule-abiding existence.

Little fires. Pearl and Trip become involved, as much at Pearl’s initiative as Trip’s, destroying Moody’s friendship with Pearl. Pearl helps Lexie get an abortion, even letting Lexie substitute Pearl’s name on the patient record, and then brings Lexie home to be cared for by Mia afterwards.

Little fires that in the end lead to the setting of little fires that burn down the house. At one point Mia talks with Izzy about how, like prairie fires, “you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over.” The fire that destroys brings new life to the prairie. The question is, will it do the same for all the people caught up in these little fires? What will Mia do about the secrets of her past that have been uncovered? And what will Elena do, seeing the destruction of her perfect life by her wayward daughter?

I was drawn to this book because the author grew up in and writes about Shaker Heights. We lived for nine years in its poorer, blue collar neighbor down the road, Maple Heights. I knew many of the places about which she wrote, ate at some of the restaurants, shopped at Shaker Square and occasionally at Heinen’s, and admired the ambiance we couldn’t touch. We knew about some of the rules. Her portrait of this earliest of model suburbs rang true.

As I read, I was drawn into this book with its interesting portrayal of people trying to do good, to keep the rules, to find and make homes and do good work, to make their way in life, and the catalytic moments when it all goes awry. I once had a friend who observed that the American dream is killing us. This book suggests how our suburban dreams may kill us, how the ideal life of successful spouses, kids in good schools groomed for Ivy League admissions, and how a life of following the rules, a life both socially conscious and socially tone deaf may destroy something of what makes us and others unique.

 

Why Do Men Read Less…on Average?

I recently came across the contention that men read fewer books a year than women. The statistics vary but the most current I could find indicated that on average, women read 14 books a year and men 9.

Clearly, I’m an anomaly, having read over 100 books a year each year of the current decade–but then I’ve always known I’m a bit of an anomaly! I read more than my wife, so our household is an exception to the norm.

Since I am an anomaly and not a good judge of these things, I thought I would go to that fount of all wisdom, Facebook, and ask my friends about this. Their responses seem in line with what has been written about this.

One friend wrote:

“While I can’t speak for all guys, I can remember growing up and it being seen by many as “nerdy” to read, and thus something to not do. This view was mostly held/expressed in elementary school, but I think that if someone absorbs this viewpoint at a young age, then it will likely be hard to change later in life.”

Another wrote:

“Could it be because it’s hard to read a book while you’re throwing or catching or hitting a ball?”

I resonate with this. Probably one of the reasons I read is that I wasn’t athletic in elementary school, usually the last to be chosen for teams. Since I already was teased for my lack of athleticism, I thought, why not read? But I can see how it would be harder for others who actually had athletic skills!

Another person responded,

“Women tend to have more verbal/language skills than males typically, it may be an off shoot of that trend”

This may relate to some other comments:

I just asked my husband, and his immediate response was “shorter attention span.” I think technology is to blame. He spends more time staring at screens, and he jumps around on them so much that it’s become a habit.”

“True for my wife and I. She reads many more books, I read a lot more news/blogs. Short attention span?”

“I’m post literate. Seriously though, I just enjoy listening to books more than reading them these days.”

Some have proposed that there may be biological differences between men’s and women’s brains but these comments also raise the question of technology. Do men and women interact differently with technology? Does listening to books count as “reading” and do these make it into these statistics? Or do men and women read different kinds of things? Statistically, the answer is “yes” with women reading far more fiction than men while men prefer non-fiction. This is particularly true in the category of romance fiction where women outnumber men 84 to 16 percent. Two of my respondents said,

Not positive but I suspect men read more newspapers. Women I know read fiction while men do not.”

I go to used bookstores, and I’m always amazed by the number of romance books they have. They really outnumber most other genres.”

This makes me wonder if some of the difference is the kinds of books read. We will tend to read fewer books that take time to read (densely written academic books for example, or history books with longer page counts that tend to have a male audience) than page turners, steamy or otherwise. One person (a woman) noted:

I read a lot less than the average person but largely academic books. The same is with my husband. Maybe that’s why we read a lot less. Some of the “average” women I do know also read mostly smut books…. which I refuse to partake.”

Another commented:

I’d be interested in a more complex breakdown of these numbers. I know some folk who put up huge Goodreads books numbers, but all they read are 200-pg pop fiction. With mass numbers and the common person, what kinds of books are the average women reading, etc?

“That information would tell us if we’re talking about “the average reader” (male and female) or “serious readers” or “academic readers”; my suspicion is that the gender differences will vary significantly between those three (or more) groups.”

I was thankful to find a few men who are as anomalous as I am. One wrote:

“I buy and read two or three times as many books as my wife, and she reads a lot.”

“We already know everything! 😂. Seriously, I read a LOT of books, so I don’t know why others don’t.” (Emoticons in actual comment.)

My very anecdotal and unscientific survey does suggest to me that there is much more to look at than the raw statistic of average books read for men and women. The questions of what kind of reading each do, including media other than books, what kind of books they read, and even what kind of readers we are all factor into this discussion. One article I looked at noted these types of readers:

  • Page Turners: avid readers (48% of women, 26 % of men)
  • Slow Worms: slow, serious readers who finish their books (18 % of women, 32 % of men).
  • Serial Shelvers: those who have shelves of books they haven’t (and probably won’t) read (17 % of women, 20 % of men)
  • Double Bookers: have at least two books going at a time (12 % of both women and men).

I found that a bit puzzling because I fall into three of the four above categories. What all this suggests though is that there is far more to be understood about our reading habits that these blunt-edged statistics don’t capture.

What are your thoughts about the differences between men and women when it comes to reading?

Review: No Other Gods

No Other Gods

No Other GodsAna Levy-Lyons. New York: Center Street, 2018.

Summary: A liberal, progressive reading of the Ten Commandments, moving beyond personal morality to the social and political implications of the commands.

It seems that the most attention the Ten Commandments have received of late are controversies about whether or not they may be displayed in court houses and other public settings. Most would perceive that these commandments are the property of the conservative elements of Judaism and Christianity and that more enlightened, secular, humanist, spiritual-but-not-religious approaches liberate people from the oppressive laws and strictures of conservative religion. Yet, Ana Levy-Lyons, the author of this work and a minister of a progressive Unitarian congregation, contends that this freedom from religion hasn’t always been liberating, evidenced by record levels of anxiety and depression and an activism lacking in sustaining ethical foundations. She proposes in her introduction to this book:

“We may feel today that we’ve outgrown the need for the religious strictures of the past. But those very strictures might well have been devised for such a moment as this. Now be when we need them most. Especially today, we need shared commitments to hold ourselves accountable to history, to the future, to one another, and to something larger than all of us. We need faith in our collective power to transform the world toward justice–a power authorized and fueled by the ground of being itself. Choose-your-own-adventure spirituality is inadequate to the challenges we face. We need religious practices like the Ten Commandments that are rooted in a deep and multilayered tradition, that are spiritually rich, and that are intentionally insulated from modern culture.”

Levy-Lyons offers an interpretation of these commandments as a radical manifesto of liberation rather than of oppression, empowering resistance to a materialistic, capitalistic society. Inspired by the rabbinic tradition of midrash, she offers a fresh interpretation of the commandments that she hopes both secular liberals and the progressive religious might engage in common.

Beginning with the first command, to have no other gods, she argues that the message of this command is to “dethrone the modern deities of political, social, and corporate power” that pervade our daily life, as well as all the private personal gods that vie for a place in our lives, whether they are ideals of beauty or what she calls the “tyranny of balance.” She argues that our relation as a community to the one who is “Being” itself demotes all these other pursuits. Likewise, we should accept no “sculpted images” (the second commandment) as substitutes, whether they be material objects or the sculpting of ourselves or being lured by the power of a brand. She contends, “real life, unfiltered by brands, is spectacular.” The third command, of not taking God’s name in vain calls upon us to defend God’s goodness by refusing to allow others to justify immorality in the name of God, or justifying a culture that celebrates guns or destroys the environment with the idea that this is how God has made the world, that this is just the way things are. It is a call to assert the goodness of God in matters of justice and care for the earth.

Against a 24/7 mentality and a rigid sabbatarianism, the fourth command is an invitation to squander one day every week. It seeks the liberation of those in wage slavery so they can also rest, it says “no” to a relentless consumerism and “yes” to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “palace in time” where we rejoice in enough and linger over meals with friends. It is a dangerously radical waste of time that threatens the “gods” of the other six days. Likewise, in a culture that fosters accountability only to ourselves and leaving home for the next new thing, the fifth commandment calls us to honor parents, and in so doing stay accountable to where we’ve come from. While not justifying the wrongs that may have been done to us, the command challenges us to honor what made us who we are, that none of us are self-made. Levy-Lyons also extends this to the earth itself, that our accountability to it is connected to our living long in the land.

To not kill is not merely to not murder, but to not let die, and challenges our involvement in systems that kill, whether they are the third world sweatshops that produce our clothes or the bureaucratic systems of a city like Flint that channel toxic water into the homes while diverting them from automotive plants. Our commitment to life may go so far as to abstain from meat or animal products, considering how animals live and die. The seventh command against adultery rejects the idolatry of consumer choice (and unchoosing) in the most intimate of human relationship, to instead turn our choices to protect innocence and to stay in for the long run. The eighth challenges us not only to refrain from taking what is ours directly, but in what we pay for things, and how our choices affect the availability of the world’s resources to others. The ninth is not about what counts as a lie but the pursuit of truth, whether in the courts, or in the marketplace or the political arena. She makes trenchant comments about “truthiness” — lies that sound like they could be true but undermine truth-telling.

She ends with the tenth commandment, to not covet, and recognizes the internal aspect of this command, how in fact coveting precedes all else. Coveting is subverted when we embrace a life of “enough”– that we have enough and we are enough. She recognizes that to cultivate a life of “enough,” that keeps the commands, takes a community (it was fascinating that as a liberal, she includes Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option in her further reading list–perhaps this is why). Her concluding chapter contends that it matters, that pursuing goodness and love multiplies to a thousand generations and in the end, the commands transform into ten blessings, a paraphrase of which she concludes the book.

I found this attempt to interpret the commands to those seeking to escape the oppressiveness of conservative religion fascinating both for the recognition of how these commandments are in fact for our and the world’s good, and the radical demands that keeping these commands raise, particularly extending beyond personal and private morality to our concerns about systems and structures and ideologies. Yet as one who exists in a different social space than the author, the insistence on the value of human relations while keeping the deity as a very impersonal Being was puzzling. I was perhaps most troubled by an unwillingness to ask questions about the use of abortion as birth control or the warehousing of the aged among our concerns about killing. There seemed to be more concern about the warehousing of animals than people. Likewise, can we truly talk about adultery without also questioning cohabiting without commitment? There was nothing about how pornography destroys marriages. It felt at times that her reading of the commands comported with the values of progressive community with whom she ministers.

We all find it easier to challenge the transgressions of others than our own. This, actually, is what makes this a good book for me to read because I often do not hear in my faith community the challenges Levy-Lyons gives in this book. At the same time, what I would contend is that these commands are truly radical in challenging “off limits” subjects for all of us, whether this has to do with our consumerism, our exploitation of the planet, or all the ways we distort the wonderful gift of our sexuality, or even our attempts to keep the infinite yet personal God at arms length. What a fascinating conversation might be had, like Bill Moyers’ Genesis series, were scholars and ministers across the spectrum gathered to discuss these ten words, ten commandments, ten blessings!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advance review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.